Rarely has a film divided critical opinion in recent years as much as Nicolas Winding Refn’s ultra-violent, religiously symbolic and uncompromising journey into hell.
Following the surprising success of Refn’s man-with-no-name neo-noir Drive, he’s reteamed with star Ryan Gosling, relocated to Thailand and revved up the experimentalism in Only God Forgives.
Although Refn has connected his latest to Drive, alluding to the fact they both exist in a heightened reality, it actually bears a closer kinship to his lesser-seen 2009 work Valhalla Rising. With its brutal acts of violence, minimalist style, and preponderance for mood over dialogue, the two films share a lot in common.
Critics rounded on the film at its Cannes premiere earlier this year, possibly out of confusion that Refn and Gosling hadn’t given them Drive 2, but those who balk at the director’s use of violence and stripped-back approach (most notably his fascination with silence) forget these are the qualities that he’s built his career on. His Pusher trilogy, Bronson and Valhalla Rising are all stylistic works punctuated by moments of shocking ferocity.
Julian (Gosling) is an expat living in Bangkok whose boxing club is a front for an industrial-scale drug operation. When his brother murders a prostitute and is himself killed out of vengeance, the monosyllabic Julian must not only contend with his domineering and contemptuous mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), but also samurai sword-wielding cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).
If Drive was a pared-down story of heroism akin to a dream, Only God Forgives is its mirror image, a bleak nightmare whose self-loathing lead character is waiting to embrace his own damnation with open arms.
Indeed, arms feature regularly in the film, be they stretched out with hands open to represent helplessness and a plea for forgiveness, or with clenched fists to show rage and repression. Refn also attaches an Old Testament religious symbolism to these shots wherein Julian is welcoming punishment for his past misdeeds.
This theological inflection is as present as the hellish crimson lighting Refn drenches over many of the scenes. Corridors are given an extra menace, while the empty nightclub in which Julian meets Chang is a barely concealed metaphor for hell’s anteroom.
As well as being a cop, Chang exudes a supernatural force. Somehow able to produce his samurai sword as if it’s attached to his spine, Chang is referred to as the Angel of Vengeance. During filming, Refn apparently whispered into Pansringarm’s ear that “you’re God”. If he is God, he’s more of the Old Testament kind, the sort who has the power of forgiveness but doesn’t intend on showing any.
Thomas is deliciously repellant as Crystal, a modern day Lady Macbeth consumed by a thirst for revenge at the death of her son and a weirdly incestuous love/hate relationship with Julian. When Julian points out that his brother raped and killed a 16-year-old girl, she replies: “I’m sure he had his reasons.”
Pansringarm is eerily non-expressive as the ghost-like Chang, who seems conjured up from Julian’s tortured subconscious. With only 17 lines of dialogue in the while film, Gosling delivers a tightly coiled performance that deviates between submissive catatonia to moments of explosive rage. He has some of the most expressive eyes in modern cinema which can emote pained puppy dog one second and barely restrained psychosis the next.
Accompanied by Cliff Martinez’s typically excellent score (one that weaves in Eastern influences without ever coming across as rote or lazy), Only God Forgives doesn’t so much enter the void as dive headlong into it.